Park Ridge actress stars in 'West Side' tour

 
 
Updated 7/16/2011 8:54 AM
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  • Maria (Park Ridge native Ali Ewoldt, in blue) sings "I Feel Pretty" to her friends (Kathryn Lin Terza, Dea Julien and Lori Ann Ferreri) in "West Side Story." The new national tour plays the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago from July 19 through Aug. 14.

    Maria (Park Ridge native Ali Ewoldt, in blue) sings "I Feel Pretty" to her friends (Kathryn Lin Terza, Dea Julien and Lori Ann Ferreri) in "West Side Story." The new national tour plays the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago from July 19 through Aug. 14. Joan Marcus

  • Maria (Park Ridge native Ali Ewoldt) and Tony (Kyle Harris) meet during a dance at the gym in "West Side Story." The national tour plays the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago from July 19 through Aug. 14.

    Maria (Park Ridge native Ali Ewoldt) and Tony (Kyle Harris) meet during a dance at the gym in "West Side Story." The national tour plays the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago from July 19 through Aug. 14. Joan Marcus

Carol Lawrence created the role of Maria in "West Side Story" on Broadway in 1957, while the late Natalie Wood's portrayal of Maria in the 10-time Academy Award-winning 1961 film version will indelibly live on for generations (especially when school kids are assigned essays to compare "West Side Story" with the Shakespearean tragedy "Romeo and Juliet" that inspired it).

Yet, when it comes to stage portrayals of Maria in the first part of the 21st century, Park Ridge-born Ali Ewoldt will probably be the actress who has clocked up the most performances in the most places. Ewoldt not only stars as Maria in the North American tour of the hit 2009 "West Side Story" Broadway revival, but she also played the same role in the show's 50th anniversary international tour that played across Europe, in Israel and Japan.

"All of that was thrilling in terms of the sightseeing," Ewoldt said during a telephone interview from Boston. "But the wonderful thing about touring in the U.S. is that I get to go and visit family members."

Strangely, one city Ewoldt hasn't previously played is Chicago. But Ewoldt makes up for lost time with a four-week "West Side Story" engagement at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre from July 19 through Aug. 14.

Ewoldt doesn't have too many memories of her hometown since her family moved to suburban Westchester County in New York when she was 2. So Ewoldt is relishing her chance to finally play the Windy City, particularly since she'll be able to visit many of her father's relatives who live in Kankakee County.

Yet, the show Ewoldt's extended family will see is not the same old "West Side Story" they might remember. That's because this revival features more Spanish in its depiction of two lovers caught up in the crossfire of 1950s New York gang warfare between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Caucasian Jets.

"West Side Story" playwright/director Arthur Laurents (who recently passed away in May at the age of 93) instituted the changes in collaboration with "In the Heights" composer/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda on the 2009 revival. The idea came from Laurents' late partner, Tom Hatcher, who remembered seeing a production of "West Side Story" in Latin America where the Sharks were played as the heroes as opposed to the Jets.

The amount of Spanish in the Broadway revival was in flux throughout its run, with whole songs sung in Miranda's Spanish translations before reverting largely back to the original English lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. For a time, projected English translations of the Spanish dialogue was also tried, but later dropped when deemed too distracting.

"Our tour is what the end result of the Broadway production was," Ewoldt said about the character-specific use of Spanish.

For example, Bernardo (Maria's brother and leader of the Sharks) speaks almost exclusively in Spanish when speaking to fellow gang members because he wants to preserve his Puerto Rican identity. Whereas Anita (Bernardo's girlfriend) insists that everybody speaks to her in English because she wants to assimilate as American.

The amount of Spanish is "enough that you get the flair of what it would be to be an immigrant and to speak a different language," Ewoldt said. "But you are fully able to understand the storyline."

As Maria, Ewoldt gets high praise from Joey McKneely, who restaged Jerome Robbins' iconic choreography for both the current and previous international tour.

"(Ewoldt is) one of the few Marias who have been so consistent in nailing the vocal requirements for the role, which are pretty tough," McKneely said about the operatic range composer Leonard Bernstein created for the lovers Tony and Maria. "A lot of people only focus on the dancing, but it is basically Romeo and Juliet, so Tony and Maria carry the show vocally."

Though Laurents didn't direct the current "West Side Story" tour himself (his directing associate David Saint restaged the production), the irascible co-creator of the show was involved in the casting process and offered several notes to the cast when the tour launched last year in Detroit. Ewoldt will forever treasure her time with the late theater legend.

"What I really appreciated about Arthur was that he saw Maria as the smartest person in the room and he wanted her to be strong and to be funny and smart instead of just being a passive agent," Ewoldt said. "We were very much encouraged not to fit a particular mold or to copy somebody else's performance but to really find our own way into them and to bring our own personalities to the characters."